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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26523


Senator JACINTA COLLINS (3:10 PM) —I rise to briefly comment on the Marriage Amendment Bill 2004 as well because I think it is important to deal with a number of issues on the record. Firstly, let me say that I support this bill because of some of the things that Senator Harradine has just said—that there is value in the current system of marriage, that we are affirming and strengthening the common law understanding of marriage—and because it is essentially consistent with the view that I have expressed now for almost a good decade to those people raising concerns with me over homosexual relationships. I was quite pleased last year when I was able to note in the Vatican statement in relation to homosexual unions two critical points, because they are the points that I have been highlighting for a decade. Some of these issues were lost in the controversy around, and the interpretations placed on, this document, but I would like to refer to a couple of them. One is the teaching that says:

Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided”.

Nothing is more clear. There is no firmer base for the Labor Party's position on what we should be doing about discrimination as affecting homosexuals. But the other element in this position highlights some of the controversy and the complications that we have been dealing with today. I will refer to that now. It comes from the conclusion in this document. It says:

11. The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.

I would like to reflect on that statement for a moment because it relates to a discussion that I had with my staff last year on the interpretation of the word `deviant'. I am trained theoretically as a statistician. To me, deviant means other than the norm. Unfortunately the interpretation I heard last year was that there was this enormous insult to homosexual people because they were being cast as deviants. I do not believe that that was the intent of this statement. I think the statement says that the norm for our society should be marriage as we understand it and that we need to apply care to how we deal with the issues over what is just and unjust discrimination to ensure that it does not undermine how we reinforce our norm for organising our community. That is what I think the meaning of this is.

As I think I implied in my opening statement, it essentially reflects the position that I have been putting to my constituents now for a good decade—that is, that I think it is reasonable that unjust discrimination against homosexuals should be removed but that I have care or concern to ensure that is not done in a way which undermines important institutions in our community. Senator Harradine gave one good example of how you need to apply care when you are thinking through these issues. Senator Greig referred to the problems associated with homosexuals who have married overseas. I am aware of many, many people who have married overseas in polygamous relationships. There is no debate here in Australia, no debate at all, that at the same time we should be dealing with polygamy. So I would just offer that one caution when we are talking about how we fiddle with the institution of marriage. I think Senator Harradine's example there is a good one.

At the same time, looking at how we regard the homosexual community, and thinking about my reflection on that word `deviant', I think on one very rare occasion I need to agree with Andrew Bolt that the homosexual community also needs to take care about how it allows perceptions to be cast. I know that some people probably take too seriously—some would counter-argue far too seriously—events such as the gay Mardi Gras. But, if the homosexual community wants to portray itself in ways other than how homophobes assume it to be, we need some care and attention.

That was highlighted in Melbourne recently with what some of the gay literature was doing in relation to one of Melbourne's high schools and the suggestion that perhaps it was encouraging paedophilia. Care and attention need to be applied on both sides when we are talking about accusations over whether people are homophobic, or whether they just have common, good-sense differences in policy or perspective.

We need to reflect on the fact that we have, I think, got to a stage where there is a fairly solid community consensus on how we should deal with discrimination. That is reflected in what has happened in many states. We should take stock, for instance, in South Australia. When legislation was progressed there, the organisation, Families First, that has been pilloried in South Australia over the last week did not oppose removing discrimination. Some would say it was a strategic manoeuvre that they sought to ensure that the removal of discrimination was applied across other types of relationships as well. But if it reflects a community view that for Families First to be regarded as credible they could not come out and say, `No, it's okay to continue to discriminate,' then we need to accept that, across a broad community now, we have a general consensus that there are issues of discrimination that need to be dealt with. This is why the Labor Party made this our priority issue. There is good community consensus on this issue, and we can make some progress consistent, as I highlighted, even with statements from the Vatican.

But we risk losing some of that community consensus with events such as those that have occurred in the last week. So I wanted to share with the chamber my response to the forum that was organised last week. I received a brochure in my office advertising the forum. I had heard nothing else about it. Despite the fact that I am aware of other senior Labor Party people attending and presenting to organisations such as the Australian Family Association, there was not one reference to any Labor participation in this forum. Despite the fact that afterwards, in the glossy brochure circulated, all the organisations paraded that they were non partisan, someone like me—with my record and my standing in this parliament—felt alienated from that event from the outset.

My word of caution to those organisations is: dare not let that continue. If you allow the sort of political debate that has occurred in the last week to continue, you will damage your own cause. If you allow Senator Barnett to incorporate the type of speech he has today, you are politicising these events in a way which will wreak damage for you in the future. That is my warning. My other warning, though, is that unfortunately—and certainly I feel this very strongly—these organisations are allowing the Howard government to deflect the very serious issue that Senator Harradine alluded to.

In today's Financial Review, a small Christian school principal indicated that it would be good if Labor funding more on a needs basis for non-government schools would assist his school, but that they are about social engineering, and that might be a problem. You tell me to which person can be more strongly attributed that label of social engineer than the Prime Minister of Australia, who allows experimentation on human embryos. That is what I call social engineering of the worst order. I remind those groups very strongly: do not have your attention deflected from issues such as that and issues such as how much real, genuine support families in Australia are receiving.

To remind people, I would like to conclude my comments by incorporating elements—I have culled this contribution—of a speech Wayne Swan made in Utah. He reflected that the very ideology of some of our conservatives today is what is introducing the market economy into our social sphere. It is that market economy perspective that is damaging our human relations. So don't stand there and cast the Labor Party as having done a backflip—which we have not. Don't set up procedural pretences to try to claim that that has been the case. We have consistently said we would support marriage as it presently stands and an affirmation of that.

Procedural manipulations and attempts to cast a backflip which never occurred are an outrage and damage the social policy issues that are at stake here. We have been quite consistent in our position. I ask anyone challenging that: what did they think Labor was going to do if the government had accepted our amendment in the House of Representatives to split the bill? If you had accepted that when it was first presented, this bill would have been through months ago. But no. You were into procedural manipulation and maintaining pretences. The sooner that stops, the better for Australian families. I seek leave to incorporate the speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows—

Families under pressure

We all know strong families build strong communities. We all know families are the backbone of a society. We all know they are the only place for teaching and nurturing the values that underwrite and bind our communities.

We all know they determine standards of acceptable behaviour within a community, and we all know it is the family that sets the benchmark for community interests, aspirations and sense of belonging.

The family, we all know, gives us our place, our identity. The family potentially holds the answers to many of our most debilitating social challenges. So why is it under so much pressure? Why is it being devalued as an option?

In Australia, we are experiencing the widening of the gap between rich and poor in both an economic and geographic sense, and we are witnessing the struggles and exhaustion in the greatest marathon of all—the raising of a family.

Life is faster, harder, more technical, more demanding of time than ever before and with all the will in the world, some families can't clear the hurdles put before them.

They struggle financially, they struggle time-management wise, they struggle with the every day stress of modern life, and they struggle with guilt.

They need both partners to work, but they want to put in time with their children, or maybe with their aging parents. They aren't given enough time to be a parent, a worker and a good involved citizen. The changes of recent years have stretched families to the limit in terms of coping with longer working hours and with the rising costs of raising children.

Everyone has heard the old saying, so popular in times of conservative governments, that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. The sad truth is that there is now a new clause on that sentence: “and the middle gets squeezed”.

Government complicity

In Australia, the current government has actively contributed to this increase in pressure being placed on families.

For example, cuts to childcare funding meant that parents' gap fees have risen by $20-$30 per week for each child. In fact, childcare fees have jumped by 56% since 1991, but government benefits have only climbed 29% over the same period, with that gulf opening up since the conservative government cut childcare in 1996.

As if trying for double-or-nothing on pressuring middle income families, the Howard Government introduced the European value-added tax system in Australia—only 30 years past its use-by date in Europe.

In Australia now, the goods and services tax, or GST, means that effectively every time a family has a child, they go up into a new tax bracket. But that's not all. When the GST was introduced, the Howard Government knew it needed to offer income tax cuts to try and compensate people for its impact. Half of them went to the top 20% of income earners. So the rich got richer; the poor got poorer; and as usual, the middle were squeezed.

Workplace pressures

A further obvious area of pressure comes from the workplace. Over time, the workplace has come to encroach more and more on family life. An Australian study found that 68% of fathers felt they had too little involvement with their children. In 1999, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed that, with dual-income couples, when both members work full-time, 70% of mothers stated that they always or often felt rushed, compared to 56% of fathers and 52% of women with no dependent children.

Family values

In the face of these pressures, the political debate has had to respond. And this is where we come to the vexed political issue of family values. Of course there are many theories today about how the family came to be in this precarious position, and how to get it back on its feet.

At one end of the political spectrum there is a preoccupation with issues such as divorce rates and single parenthood and the decline of the nuclear family. At the other end there is a concern for atypical families and their rights. One thing we all agree on is that the pressures on families are a problem.

Social Conservatives want to reverse the change via a cultural movement to re-establish family values and traditions. An important part of this, they argue is to dismantle the welfare state which serves to give families an excuse not to support each other. Some believe the dominance of individual rights over the community is a major cause of the family's plight and sense that a values and morals movement could put things right again.

Those of a less conservative bent see the change to the family as a component of broader social issues like the changing economy, gender equality and so on—in other words, things that people would not want to reverse or that cannot be reversed.

In Australia however, the evidence in shows that what we see as the traditional family is alive and well. Despite the rise in divorce rates, by age 15, 77% of children live with both parents and 91% of one-year olds live with both parents.

None-the-less, in considering the current debate on the role of the family it's easy to hark back to the days of white picket fences, back to the 50s, when families were real families, and say 'we should go back there.' We can't go back.

But if there is a “values” debate worth having, it's this one: In years gone by, the family represented a shelter from the outside world. It was a place of daily renewal and regeneration. A place of readiness from which to emerge to do daily joust in the market or civic arena. Morals were reinforced and formed in the family. Family values were wholesome, reverent, promoted order. And they were different to the values in the marketplace.

Steadily, the rules of the market economy have encroached on family life. In the market people learned self-interest. They learned individualism, competitiveness and aggression. They learned to focus all on growth at all costs. In the economy there are different sorts of responsibilities, it's laissez-faire.....no obligations, no limits, just rights....sound familiar?

How often do we hear people say that the trouble with kids today is that they have no values? The thing is, they do. But more often than not, they have the values of the market economy. Little wonder that it takes just a few short years for a toddler to unlearn the innocent first rule of play and social interaction: how to share!

Too often, the very conservatives who talk about family values have radical economic policies which only push the market further into family lives. Families should be able to expect both a fair share of the economic good times and a good family life. Government policy should be directed at achieving these twin goals. We shouldn't be washing our hands of the problem, and we certainly shouldn't be in there up to our elbows making it worse.

It takes a very committed government in these difficult times to really make a difference for average families. Conservatives in the past made a strong play on family values on the basis that they were the ones attempting to hold back change and preserve the position of families. The problem now is that change is upon us. It has clearly outflanked average families. What is needed now is not a strategy to preserve the status quo, because that status quo—as I have shown—is one of ever-mounting pressure on families.

Too often today, the only thing conservatives can preserve is privilege. Australia's conservative Prime Minister John Howard has proved excellent at looking after the better-off. Where he is failing is in sticking up for average families. The problem with our current Prime Minister is that despite all his rhetoric to the contrary, he puts market values ahead of family values. What we need is a government prepared to join battle on the side of average families—to give them the tools and the support they need to confront change—to put them first rather than last.

Birth rate

The reason is that the problem is no longer one just facing families. It is a problem confronting entire nations.

The pre-eminent issue threatening our families is their declining number. Like many other nations—we face the problem of an aging population driven by declining birthrate. We know that the challenges of paying for health care; aged care; and pensions will only get bigger as our baby boomers grow older. In a short period of time we will have gone from baby boom to baby bust.

Australia's birthrate is now 1.75 down from 1.84 less than a decade ago. Today, there is one Australian of retirement age for about every five Australians of working age. Assuming current levels of net migration continue in the future, in the year 2021, there will be one for about every 3 ½. And by 2051, the ratio will be one for every 2 ½. Why? Because many couples are deciding not to have children, and it is a perfectly legitimate choice.

However, it is the task of policymakers to ensure that it is also a conscious choice—that people are not discouraged from having children by bad policies.

Sadly, for too many Australians the choice to have children weighs heavily. They look at the economy, their careers, and the future for children of our society—a good education, a decent job, a home. When they do their sums they are quite rationally delaying or deciding against having children.

We must tackle the birthrate problem if we are to safeguard our future and central to the problem of the birthrate is the economic plight of ordinary working families. Immigration helps a bit, but in terms of lowering the average age of the population, you can't get much better than a new child aged 0!

Family policy, properly understood, is not about forcing women to have more children, or keeping them in the home, or any other such antiquated rubbish. It is simply about things that you would want to do anyway—make it easier for families to have and care for children. The growing intolerance in our society towards families—so often expressed as the complaint, why should my taxes pay for someone else's children?—comes from a failure to recognise that families perform a social good. Families produce the workers of tomorrow who will support us in our old age. They are also nurturing children who will provide our society with innovation, creativity and hope for the future.

Work and family

How do we provide encouragement for those families who want to have children but are not? How do we ensure that the current paradoxical situation whereby families who can afford children are not having them, and families who cannot are—is addressed?

First, we have to accept the reality of economic life. We have to accept that in most families both parents need to work. So we need to help those families balance work and family life.

The OECD has been closely following the relationship between work and family policy and birthrate. It has found that family size is lowest in countries where women's labour force participation is lowest. The OECD sensibly observes that such correlations do not prove that increasing female labour force participation rates will inevitably increase fertility rates. But they do suggest “child rearing and paid work are complementary rather than alternative activities,” and that policy should be made on that basis.

Let me give you an example of what I mean—and I think this one is equally as relevant in your country. I spoke earlier of how the conservative Australian Government has punished families through its childcare and taxation policies. But a further policy agenda has arguably done as much—if not more—damage. Since 1996, the Howard Government has favoured a policy of radical workplace deregulation.

It has weakened the industrial awards that protected wages and conditions in the workplace, and has very effectively worked to lessen the influence of industrial unions in Australian workplaces, and weakened the Australian industrial relations commission, which was traditionally the 'umpire' that worked to promote industrial harmony and workplace fairness. As a result many workers in Australia have now traded off hard won conditions, like job security, for meagre wage increases. The practical result of this has been to lessen job security, and to release a boom in casual as opposed to permanent work.

An Australian Demographer, Peter McDonald agues that this radical economic agenda in Australia has seen:

Family-friendly industrial relations reversed in the interests of efficiency;

The hiring of people who will not be disturbed by the demands of family responsibility;

Job insecurity which arises from individual contracts;

Calls for further cuts to family services and lowering taxes

Labor's work and family agenda

Responsibilities are important; but when the decline of families is in direct proportion to the economic pressure placed on it by government decisions, one has to ask whether they are the real issue. In our country we have a government that is more concerned with the fluctuation of prices on the sharemarket than those at the local supermarket. Its ministers take their cue from those sitting around the boardroom tables rather those peeling potatoes at kitchen tables. And in his haste to reduce the size of Government our Prime Minister has increased the vulneralibility of families to the harsh forces of the market.

Early assistance

My Labor Party has not only turned its mind to family matters, it will bring the resources of government to bear, to ensure the foundations of families are strong.

In our country, people always talk about the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. Projects like the Snowy Mountains dammed mighty rivers; drilled through mountains and gave the nation an asset for generations to come.

Our modern Snowy Mountains challenge is of a `human' rather than a `bricks and mortar' kind. It is about making families stronger by giving them more time together and providing them with the support they need. I see our modern Snowy Mountains Scheme as a complete redrawing of the map when it comes to services for families and childrens services including childcare.

We currently have a patchwork quilt of services—childcare, maternal and child health, family support and early education—that is fragmented and inaccessible. Where once the infrastructure challenge facing us was to move mountains, we now must move minds. We need a root and branch reappraisal of services for children and families and we have to make sure young families get all the services they need to be good families. That means changing the way Governments (and remember like you we have three tiers of it) plans and funds child and family services.

There will be those who argue that the logistics are too difficult. That you can't hope to create a service system where a child and their family get the right mix of medical, practical and emotional support when they need, where they need and how they need it. I think you can. And I think we must begin the task. Because we are sitting on 40 of years of research on child development that says unequivocally—every dollar invested today can save many more down the track. Research that suggests if you get the platform of child and family services right you have less adults who cannot read, less spending time in prison and less without work.

My vision of a new child and family service platform starts with a comprehensive national program of early assistance backed by a Government commitment to monitor and strive to improve the wellbeing of families and their children.

Childcare

Childcare is the single biggest issue most parents cite when it comes to the task of balancing work and family. It is essential to the modern balance between work and family life, and to providing opportunities for children's development.

Labor's commitment to the reworking of services for families and children will have a strong focus child care, particularly to ensure it is once again affordable and available to the many families who need it. While enabling parents to work and study will always be a central purpose of childcare, it can also promote children's growth in healthy environments. We must face the reality that couples are having children later in life and this is producing more single child families. Childcare provides this growing number of children with a chance to socialise that once would have been provided by a brother or sister.

Labor will invest in childcare—in the name of not only higher living standards for struggling families; but also a better educational start for children.

Industrial relations

There are 2.8 million working parents with kids in Australia. If we could give each one of them just one more hour a week with their kids, that would be an extra 150 million hours a year invested in happier kids; stronger families; better values. What a great investment in the future of our nation.

We want to steal back the millions of hours together that have been taken from families in the last few years. We want to give people the real choices to earn a living, but also to have time with the people who they live for.

Welfare reform

In my view, lasting welfare reform comes from three things:

provision of an adequate safety net—so no one falls through the cracks;

the investment in opportunities—so people have the skills that employers want, and

the provision of incentives—making work pay.

Our current Government believes you motivate the wealthy by giving them more, but when it comes to poor families, the motivational technique is to give them less and to hand out punishment. While they make sport of demonising people with labels like `job snobs,' there is a persistent refusal to address the appalling poverty traps that see unemployed families keep just 10 cents of each extra dollar they earn.

All the rhetoric from the Liberal Party about restoring family values means nothing if it is not matched by policy effort that gives families the support they need to be self sufficient and successful. Therefore welfare reform must place as much emphasis on responsibilities as it does on obligations. Government has a clear responsibility to ensure it does its part in helping families back to work, particularly where it's economic decisions and policy may have put them out of work in the first place.

Conclusion

The message I have been trying to give today is this:

The foundation of family prosperity—putting family values before market values—has been ignored in our political debate for too long— caught in a debate for and against different moral propositions.

This debate is important, but it should not be allowed to be a substitute for Government action to support and strengthen families—action that reflects basic and uncontested values and demonstrates that families are a priority.

When the family debate is exclusively about moral propositions, political conservatives who don't want to spend money on education; healthcare; families; and communities—are let off the hook.

No progressive party like the Labor Party can stand by and allow this to go on. We need to take up the battle—for the elevation of family values above market values because an investment in our families is an investment in the future of our nation.

What is a nation after all? It is a lot of things—the industries, the geography. But most importantly it's a place where people live, and people in the end come back to one thing—family.